The final days of Russian writers: Sergey Esenin and Vladimir Mayakovsky

On Dec. 25, 1925, Sergei Esenin checked in to the Angleterre Hotel in St. Petersburg. He wouldn’t leave it alive. The writer was 30 and a disillusioned man, tired of life, women, poetry and his friends. He had become the enfant terrible of Bolshevik society: disorderly and rebellious but also talented, loved by the public, and loyal to the new authorities. Yet he had also become increasingly provocative in recent years; his 1921 work “Confessions of a Hooligan” had revealed another side to his personality: anguished and vulgar. His drinking was getting out of control, and the authorities were beginning to notice.

With his blonde, curly hair and light-colored eyes, Esenin looked like a typical big screen heartthrob – although his rude manners were at odds with his homely, boy next door looks. Despite this, the writer was an undoubted ladies man who had three failed marriages under his belt by the time he died. His most famous was with the contemporary American dancer Isadora Duncan – 17 years his senior at the age of 45. After their marriage, they set off on a year-long trip to Europe and the United States. To the delight of the international press, there was no shortage of fighting in public and violent outbursts by Esenin, who was always drunk. He found nothing of interest in the West – except the foxtrot – and no one seemed interested in his work there anyway. The couple split when they returned to Russia. In 1925, Esenin was married to one of Tolstoy’s granddaughters, Sophia, who forced him to check himself into hospital. Unfortunately, the therapy had no effect, and there seemed to be no hope for his depression and alcoholism. When he left the hospital, the writer withdrew all the money from his account and went on a drinking spree. Esenin ended up at the Angleterre Hotel after being forcibly removed from the writers’ bar, where he knocked over furniture, smashed glasses on the floor, and abused his fellow drinkers with claims that they were “arrivistes” and “mediocre.” He spent two days drinking vodka in his hotel room, before slashing his wrists on Dec. 27 and writing his last poem with his own blood: “Goodbye, my friend … / There's nothing new in dying now / Though living is no newer.” The following morning, Esenin was found hanging from the heating pipes on the ceiling.

What seems like an open and shut case of suicide may not be so simple. In the months leading up to his death the Soviet authorities had become increasingly concerned about the poet’s drunken debauchery. Criminal charges were brought against him and his friends because of their numerous brawls, and the Bolsheviks feared that Esenin could start to denounce the new government. Apparently there was even discussion of putting the poet under continual surveillance. This has led to unproven speculation that Esenin was assassinated by the secret police – a theory that is still hotly contested. Esenin was so famous that his death triggered a wave of copycat suicides. The communist authorities, who viewed Esenin’s poetry with suspicion for its individualism and “hooliganism,” reacted strongly, and his books were banned for many years after his death. Students who read his poems could be expelled from university, and distributing manuscript copies of his poems was punished with jail time.

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